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John Oliver: Parents Aren’t Preparing Kids for Automation

It feels good to laugh about automation and the dire future of the job market. But wouldn't it feel better to do something to protect our kids?

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On Sunday, comedian John Oliver addressed how automation is changing the American workforce, saying “Fifty years from now people will be doing jobs that we can’t even imagine right now. Like crypto baker, snail re-hydrater, investment harpist.” Then he spoke to kids about their future careers, which went about as well as you might think: He told them that robots could do their dream jobs and they told him off. It was sweet and funny, but also a shot across the bow for parents, a group that has a tendency to pour time and energy into preparing kids for the present even when that’s unlike to help.

John Oliver’s proposed solution? Stop preparing kids for jobs and start preparing them to do social and creative work. It’s a good idea.

The current education system is a holdover from an America that no-longer exists — an industrial powerhouse in need of a compliant workforce. Schools were expected to give industry a workforce that could read, write, calculate basic sums and, above all, follow directions. That’s what was necessary to keep goods flowing out of American factories.

Parents largely took this education for granted. At the height of American production, economic inequality was low and parenting was relaxed. After all, there wasn’t particularly any reason to strive when a high school education could land a steady manufacturing job. Which it did until globalization upended the global economy and American industry.

But parents in the 1970s and 1980s had no way of knowing that they were raising kids for a future filled with high-tech jobs where a college degree was increasingly necessary for success. No one saw Bill Gates coming. But everyone sees Mark Zuckerberg and most of us seem to understand that the disruptors of the future are already on their way. Still, public school curriculums are built around soon-to-be-outdated technological lessons rather than around the sorts of soft skills needed to find human employment in a robotic age.

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The modern classroom is built to churn out factory workers. This makes no sense at all.

What skills aren’t going out of style? The ability to solve problems creatively using emotionally intelligence and communication for one. Robots can’t do that shit. (Most humans can’t either.) Though these skills have not been traditionally valued in an industrial economy, we don’t live in one of those. We only go to school in one.

And here’s the good news: Social skills and creativity are best learned socially, with a huge degree of freedom for exploration. So perhaps the best way for parents to prepare their kids for the future is by giving them more opportunity to explore and be social. That’s the antithesis of the over-scheduled and overburdened lives we currently push on parents and children. Parents can do their kids a service by calming down a bit.

In the end, by giving our kids the opportunity to play and discover we are better preparing them for a future economy and employment ecosystem that we are unlikely to recognize. It’s better than Olivers solution, which is coaching kids to offer a new response when questioned about what they want to be when they grow up: “I want to do a series of non-routine tasks that require social intelligence complex critical thinking and creative problem solving.”